1 Samuel 3:1-21
First Samuel begins with an account of Hannah, the wife of Elkanah. While much beloved, Hannah was unable to conceive children, a fact that caused her great anguish. She went to the temple at Shiloh to pray for God’s help. In her fervent prayer, she vowed, “Yahweh of Armies, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your handmaid, and remember me, and not forget your handmaid, but will give to your handmaid a boy, then I will give him to Yahweh all the days of his life, and no razor shall come on his head” (1:11).
The Lord heard her prayer and she bore a child whom she named Samuel. Once Samuel was weaned (about age three), she took him to the temple, saying, “I have granted him to Yahweh. As long as he lives he is granted to Yahweh” (1:28). She then prayed a prayer that would later serve as a model for Mary’s Magnificat (2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55).
The story then shifts to the story of Eli’s wicked sons, Hophni and Phinehas (1:11-17), who “despised the offering of Yahweh” (2:17). Eli failed to take proper corrective action with his sons (1:22-25). Their lives contrast dramatically with that of young Samuel, who “grew on, and increased in favor both with Yahweh, and also with men”—words that Luke will later apply to Jesus (2:26; Luke 2:52).
Then “a man of God” rebukes Eli for failing to correct his sons. He says that God will cut off Eli and his family (2:27-36). The text does not call the man a prophet, even though he is performing a prophetic ministry. In this book, Samuel is the prophet.
The lectionary makes verses 11-20 optional, but the preacher would do well to include them—and verse 21 as well. In this story, God raises up Samuel to replace weak Eli and his corrupt sons—and makes abundant the word of the Lord, which has been rare during Eli’s tenure (3:1). Read the whole chapter to capture the power of this story.
1 SAMUEL 3:1. THE CHILD SAMUEL MINISTERED TO YAHWEH BEFORE ELI
1The child Samuel ministered to Yahweh before Eli. The word of Yahweh was precious in those days; there was no frequent vision.
“The child Samuel ministered to Yahweh before Eli” (v. 1a). We don’t know how old Samuel is at this point, but he is probably an adolescent or a young man. The last we heard was that he “grew on, and increased in favor both with Yahweh, and also with men” (2:26).
There are two significant phrases in this part of this verse. First, Samuel is ministering to the Lord—doing what Hannah promised God that he would do. Secondly, he is doing so under Eli’s supervision. Eli is a deeply flawed priest and his days are numbered, but he is still the priest in charge of the temple at Shiloh.
“The word of Yahweh was precious in those days; there was no frequent vision” (v. 1b). While this verse does not explicitly link the scarcity of God’s word with the prophecy against Eli and his household (2:22-36), it is clear that they are linked. Eli and his sons have not been faithful, so God has withheld his word.
But God has not absented himself permanently. He is about to appoint Samuel as prophet, and Samuel will bring the word of the Lord to the people.
1 SAMUEL 3:2-4. SAMUEL LAID DOWN IN THE TEMPLE OF YAHWEH
2It happened at that time, when Eli was laid down in his place (now his eyes had begun to grow dim, so that he could not see), 3and the lamp of God hadn’t yet gone out, and Samuel had laid down in the temple of Yahweh, where the ark of God was; 4that Yahweh called Samuel; and he said, “Here I am.”
“It happened at that time, when Eli was laid down in his place (now his eyes had begun to grow dim, so that he could not see)” (v. 2). In verse 1, we learned that “the word of Yahweh was precious” and “there was no frequent vision”. Now we learn that Eli’s eyesight has grown dim so that cannot see. This almost certainly speaks to Eli’s spiritual as well as his physical vision.
“and the lamp of God hadn’t yet gone out” (v. 3a). Once again, given the context, this is likely to be more than a simple reference to the state of the lamp in the temple. Visions are not widespread (v. 1)—and Eli’s vision is dim (v. 2)—and this lamp is still burning but is about to go out.
However, even though these words have symbolic value, they might also tell us the time of day. The priests are to keep the lamp burning from evening until morning (Exodus 27:20-21; Leviticus 24:1-4). This verse suggests that it is early morning.
But the fact that the lamp has not yet gone out is hopeful. The word of God has been absent and there haven’t been many visions. Eli is old and weak and nearly blind. But the lamp, however dim, is still burning. God has not abandoned this place or these people.
“and Samuel had laid down in the temple of Yahweh, where the ark of God was” (v. 3b). The ark of God is the Ark of the Covenant—a chest made of acacia wood overlaid with gold. It is 2.5 cubits (45 inches or 114 cm) by 1.5 cubits (27 inches or 69 cm) by 1.5 cubits. It contains the tablets of the Ten Commandments as well as Aaron’s rod and a golden urn filled with manna. On top of the ark, two cherubim guard a gold mercy seat—God’s throne. The ark is the holiest object in Israel, and symbolizes the presence of God.
So when young Samuel sleeps near the ark of God, he is sleeping in the presence of God. Eli is sleeping elsewhere, not too distant. No telling where Eli’s rascal sons are sleeping—or with whom!
“that Yahweh called Samuel; and he said, ‘Here I am'” (v. 4). God calls Samuel’s name, and Samuel replies, “Here I am!” In some translations, God says, “Samuel, Samuel.” This formula is used in several significant calls.
• The angel called, “Abraham, Abraham” to stop Abraham from slaying Isaac, and Abraham responded, “Here I am!” (Genesis 22:11).
• God called, “Jacob, Jacob” to promise to make of him a great nation, and Jacob responded, “Here I am!” (Genesis 46:2).
• God called, “Moses, Moses” from the burning bush, and Moses responded, “Here I am!” (Exodus 3:4).
1 SAMUEL 3:5-7. “HERE I AM; FOR YOU CALLED ME.”
5(Samuel) ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am; for you called me.”
(Eli) said, “I didn’t call; lie down again.”
(Samuel) went and lay down.
6Yahweh called yet again, “Samuel!”
Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am; for you called me.”
(Eli) answered, “I didn’t call, my son; lie down again.”
7Now Samuel didn’t yet know Yahweh, neither was the word of Yahweh yet revealed to him.
“He ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am; for you called me.’ He said, ‘I didn’t call; lie down again.’ He went and lay down” (v. 5). Samuel thinks that he has heard Eli’s voice, so he goes to Eli. But Eli sends him back to bed.
“Yahweh called yet again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am; for you called me.’ He answered, ‘I didn’t call, my son; lie down again'” (v. 6). This repeats the events of verses 4-5, except that God calls Samuel’s name only once.
“Now Samuel didn’t yet know Yahweh, neither was the word of Yahweh yet revealed to him” (v. 7). Hannah dedicated Samuel to lifelong service to the Lord, and he surely knows that. He has been working in the temple for some time—probably several years—so he knows who Yahweh is. But something is missing. God has not yet revealed himself to Samuel in the way that he soon will. At this moment, Samuel knows God in the same way as the rest of devout Israel. Soon, he will know the Lord and the Lord’s word as God’s prophet.
1 SAMUEL 3:8-9. ELI PERCEIVED THAT YAHWEH HAD CALLED THE CHILD
8Yahweh called Samuel again the third time.
He arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am; for you called me.”
Eli perceived that Yahweh had called the child.
9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down: and it shall be, if he calls you, that you shall say, ‘Speak, Yahweh; for your servant hears.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
“Yahweh called Samuel again the third time. He arose and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am; for you called me.’Eli perceived that Yahweh had called the child” (v. 8). After being awakened for the third time, Eli begins to understand that something special is happening. It occurs to Eli that the Lord might be calling Samuel.
“Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down: and it shall be, if he calls you, that you shall say, “Speak, Yahweh; for your servant hears.”‘ So Samuel went and lay down in his place” (v. 9). Eli failed his own sons—failed to practice tough love when it was needed—but he does not fail Samuel. His intuition that God is calling Samuel is correct, and he advises Samuel well.
1 SAMUEL 3:10-14. SPEAK; FOR YOUR SERVANT HEARS
10Yahweh came, and stood, and called as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”
Then Samuel said, “Speak; for your servant hears.”
11Yahweh said to Samuel, “Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of everyone who hears it shall tingle. 12In that day I will perform against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from the beginning even to the end. 13For I have told him that I will judge his house forever, for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves, and he didn’t restrain them. 14Therefore I have sworn to the house of Eli, that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be removed with sacrifice nor offering forever.”
“Yahweh came, and stood, and called as at other times, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’
Then Samuel said, ‘Speak; for your servant hears'” (v. 10). Once again the Lord calls Samuel’s name twice. This time Samuel answers, “Speak; for your servant hears.” It is the right response. Samuel acknowledges his servant status before the Lord. He also acknowledges the Lord’s right to speak and Samuel’s need to listen.
“Yahweh said to Samuel, ‘Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of everyone who hears it shall tingle'” (v. 11). The Lord promises to do something stunning—something that will get every Israelite’s attention—something so dramatic that people will later remember where they were when they heard the news.
“In that day I will perform against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from the beginning even to the end” (v. 12). This refers back to the man of God who rebuked Eli for dishonoring his office and who told Eli that the Lord would soon “cut off your arm, and the arm of your father’s house, that there shall not be an old man in your house” (2:27-36). The prophecy was made in the last chapter. Now the Lord intends to fulfill it.
“For I have told him that I will judge his house forever” (v. 13a). God’s intent was that Eli and his family “should walk before me forever” (2:30), but Eli’s unfaithfulness has transformed a forever blessing into a forever punishment.
“for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves, and he didn’t restrain them” (v. 13b). It does not appear that Eli was guilty of misusing his office or blaspheming God personally, but he was guilty of allowing his sons, Hophni and Phinehas, to do these things. Hophni and Phinehas “had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people” (2:12-13). They treated the sacrificial offerings as their own personal feeding trough (2:13-16). They “despised the offering of Yahweh” (2:17).
This contempt constituted blasphemy—a sin more usually associated with irreverent speech. Torah law prescribes, “he who blasphemes the name of Yahweh, he shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him” (Leviticus 24:16a).
If Eli had inflicted proper discipline when they were small, they would not have lost their way so completely. If he had confronted them earlier, no harsh discipline would be required now.
“Therefore I have sworn to the house of Eli, that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be removed with sacrifice nor offering forever” (v. 14). Because Eli’s sons “despised the offering of Yahweh” (2:17), they cannot expect God to treat their offerings with respect?
1 SAMUEL 3:15-18. SAMUEL TOLD HIM EVERY BIT
15Samuel lay until the morning, and opened the doors of the house of Yahweh. Samuel feared to show Eli the vision. 16Then Eli called Samuel, and said, “Samuel, my son!”
He said, “Here I am.”
17(Eli)said, “What is the thing that he has spoken to you? Please don’t hide it from me. God do so to you, and more also, if you hide anything from me of all the things that he spoke to you.” 18Samuel told him every bit, and hid nothing from him.
(Eli) said, “It is Yahweh. Let him do what seems good to him.”
“Samuel lay until the morning, and opened the doors of the house of Yahweh” (v. 15a). We can imagine Samuel lying awake all night—troubled by the terrible word that he has heard from the Lord—troubled by the part that the Lord has called him to play in this drama. When morning comes, Samuel begins his day as if it were any other. He opens the doors of the house of the Lord. He no doubt finds solace in his routine. Routines comfort us in troubled times.
There is symbolism here as well. Samuel is opening the doors of the temple, but he will soon open the doors to a new religious experience for Israel.
“Samuel feared to show Eli the vision” (v. 15b). This is Samuel’s first experience as a prophet, and he has been given an especially difficult mission. Eli occupies a position at the top of Israelite society. He has charge over the Shiloh temple and its furnishings. He handles the things of God on a daily basis. He performs the sacrificial ministry called for in the law. But, more than that, he has been a surrogate father to Samuel—a good father—a better father to Samuel than to his own sons. It is no wonder that Samuel is afraid to tell Eli of the terrible things that God has revealed to him. It is no wonder that he seems paralyzed.
“Then Eli called Samuel, and said, ‘Samuel, my son!’ He said, ‘Here I am'” (v. 16). But Eli, to his credit, is not paralyzed. He hears Samuel stir. He hears the doors opening. He knows that something significant has happened, so he initiates a conversation with Samuel. He wants to know what Samuel has learned in his encounter with God.
“He said, ‘What is the thing that he has spoken to you? Please don’t hide it from me. God do so to you, and more also, if you hide anything from me of all the things that he spoke to you'” (v. 17). Eli has heard the rebuke and devastating prophecy of the man of God (2:27-36). He knows that the Lord has revealed something to Samuel, and can imagine that it has to concerns him. A thousand possibilities must be going through his mind—all of them fearful—but he needs to hear the truth. He pronounces a curse on Samuel if Samuel fails to tell him everything.
“Samuel told him every bit, and hid nothing from him” (v. 18a). This is the great test of Samuel’s prophetic calling—the most difficult thing that he has ever been called to do or will ever be called to do. Young Samuel rises to the occasion, telling Eli everything that he has heard.
“He (Eli) said, ‘It is Yahweh. Let him do what seems good to him'” (v. 18b). Eli knows that his sons have committed terrible sins, and he knows that he is shares their guilt. He has failed as a father and as a priest. His conscience is weighing heavily on him. He is therefore able to accept God’s judgment as just and right. It is a graceful note at the end of a sadly flawed life.
The next chapter will tell us of the capture of the ark by the Philistines—and the deaths of thirty thousand Israelites, including Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas (4:2-11). It will also tell us of the death of Eli, who upon hearing of the great catastrophe, “fell from off his seat backward by the side of the gate; and his neck broke, and he died; for he was an old man, and heavy” (4:18). It will also tell us of the death of Phinehas’ wife in a difficult childbirth prompted by news of the catastrophe (4:19-22). Before dying, she names her baby Ichabod, meaning, “The glory has departed from Israel” (4:21).
1 SAMUEL 3:19-21. YAHWEH WAS WITH SAMUEL
19Samuel grew, and Yahweh was with him, and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20All Israel from Dan even to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of Yahweh. 21Yahweh appeared again in Shiloh; for Yahweh revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of Yahweh.
“Samuel grew, and Yahweh was with him, and let none of his words fall to the ground” (v. 19). God is present in Samuel’s life and in his words. Samuel has been faithful to God, so God blesses his words and his works.
“All Israel from Dan even to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of Yahweh” (v. 20). Dan and Beersheba are respectively the northernmost and southernmost cities of Israel, so from Dan to Beersheba is a conventional way of saying “throughout the whole land.”
“The real climax of this passage comes in the final notice that identifies Samuel as the Lord’s fully authorized prophet” (Birch).
“Yahweh appeared again in Shiloh; for Yahweh revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of Yahweh” (v. 21). This verse is not in the lectionary reading, but is a fitting end to this story.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Baldwin, Joyce G., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries:1 & 2 Samuel, Vol. 8 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988)
Bergin, Robert D., The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Samuel, Vol. 7 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996)
Birch, Bruce C., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Numbers- Samuel, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation Commentary: I and II Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1973)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Cartledge, Tony W., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Samuel (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2001)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Evans, Mary J., New International Biblical Commentary: 1 and 2 Samuel (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000)
Gehrke, Ralph David, Concordia Commentary: 1 and 2 Samuel (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968)
Hoezee, Scott, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Klein, Ralph W., Word Biblical Commentary: 1 Samuel, Vol. 10 (Dallas: Word Books, 1983)
Newsome, James D., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Peterson, Eugene H., Westminster Bible Companion: First and Second Samuel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999)
Tsumura, David Toshio, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The First Book of Samuel (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan